It all starts with a knock on the door.
(Well, that’s not actually true. It really started when a frustrated history professor and a broken-hearted med student found themselves reaching for the same shot of tequila at Ted’s on Taco Tuesday sixteen years ago. But more on that later.)
It’s been one of those days. The kind that makes you question your life choices and contemplate the possibility of squishing an entire horde of goblins under an almost-but-not-totally complete bridge, and though he would prefer a glass of Pinot and the comforts of some smooth jazz, Walter finds himself reluctantly standing on the front porch of the Lake residence. He has never made a house-call before, preferring to prove due diligence through ignored phone calls and unanswered emails, but this visit is meant to fulfill obligations for both of his hired professions and so he forces himself to raise his arm and knock.
There’s no answer, which he finds slightly perturbing since the curtains in the living room are wide open and he’d spotted the good doctor on his way up the steps. He leans to the right to peer through the window again just in time to see the back of Barbara Lake’s head disappear behind the couch.
Rude, he thinks with a scowl and knocks again with more vigor.
His hearing is exceptional (by human standards anyway), so he’s able to pick up a groan of frustration followed by the sound of her heavy, unenthusiastic steps as she makes her way to the door and then answers it. Walter opens his mouth but shuts it immediately as his heart flops unexpectedly at the sight of the tall redhead. There’s something oddly familiar about the woman in front of him, something that has nothing to do with the familial traits she shares with her son, and Walt finds himself at a loss for words as he stares at her with a confused expression on his face.
“Um, hello,” he finally manages after a painfully awkward amount of time. “My name is Walter Strickler. I’m your son’s History teacher.”
Barbara’s eyebrows furrow and Walter is relieved to see that she seems to be as flustered as he is.
“I’d like to talk to you about some of the concerns I have with Jim’s performance in class,” Walter tilts his head to the side, “but I can come back if this is a bad time?”
“Oh. No,” Barbara says after clearing her throat, “of course I have time to discuss Jim. What’s going on? He isn’t failing your class, is he?”
“Not yet,” Walter says as he slowly regains control of his thoughts. What is it about this woman that has him feeling so completely out of his element? “He’s been having a hard time focusing in class lately and there has been a drastic decline in the quality of the work he submits. I’m worried he may be overextending himself with his extracurricular activities.”
“Extracurricular activities?” Barbara frowns. “He hasn’t mentioned any extracurricular activities to me.”
“It’s my understanding you work long hours?” He knows he’s offended her as soon as the words leave his mouth and watches ruefully as her jaw clenches and her chin raises defiantly. He tries to backtrack immediately. “I mean-“
“I fail to see why my schedule should affect my son’s ability to effectively communicate with me,” Barbara interrupts. “We text throughout the day and he checks in regularly when I’m at the hospital.”
“But,” Walter asks as delicately as possible, “he hasn’t mentioned the chess club or the play?”
Barbara’s eyes slide sideways. “Erm, no.”
Walter gives her a patient smile, the one he reserves for placating angry parents and violent troll overlords, and peeks around her as the sound of a tea kettle whistling reaches his ears. “Your water has boiled. Maybe we can discuss Jim’s new responsibilities in more detail over a cup of tea?”
“How…” Barbara frowns and glances over her shoulder. “How did you hear that? Do you have superhuman ears or something?”
“Or something,” Walter chuckles nervously and takes the opportunity to survey his surroundings as Barbara leads him through the house. The furniture is a little dated and he’s surprised the television still works, but their home seems to be well-kept and in good condition overall. There are few personal touches, probably due to her limited time at home, but he does spot a handful of framed photos as they walk through the living room. They’re mostly of Jim, though there is one portrait of a couple he assumes are her parents hanging near the hall and an older snapshot of Barbara holding a newborn Jim on the console table.
Something about the picture causes him to pause and he’s contemplating plucking it off the table for a closer inspection when Barbara calls from the kitchen, “Lemon or honey?”
“Lemon,” Walter answers and strides into the kitchen without a second glance at the photo, “please.”
“No sugar?” Barbara asks as she hands Walter his teacup. He shakes his head as she leads him to the kitchen table to continue their conversation. “So, Jim is in the chess club?”
“Apparently,” Walter reveals skeptically, “he was scouted by the team?”
“Scouted?” Barbara scoffs. “Don’t get me wrong, Jim is a very smart boy. But I tried to teach him chess a few months ago and it went right over his head. He had absolutely no interest in the game.”
“You play chess?” Walter sits further up in his chair and peers at Barbara with interest. He plays online every now and then (mostly when he should be grading quizzes or tracking down missing bridge pieces) but hasn’t had any luck finding a decent opponent in real life and is pleased to find someone else who shares his affinity for the game.
“I’m a bit rusty, but yes.” Barbara smiles wistfully. “My dad taught me when I was a kid. He was so proud the first time I legitimately beat him.”
“My father taught me, as well. We had the most exquisite set carved from ivory and it drove him mad when I would smash the pieces together.” His human father had been a complete bastard, but the few fond memories he did have of the man centered around the chessboard. “He was a politician and valued the strategy behind the game.”
“A politician?” Barbara raises an eyebrow. “Anyone I’ve heard of?”
“After the military, my father went into sales,” Barbara says, thoughtfully. “Of the door-to-door variety. He could sell you the shirt off your back but was too noble to ever do it. Maybe that’s where Jim gets his acting abilities from? Though he’s never shown any interest in that either.”
“Oh, I believe I can explain that one,” Walter leans forward and eyes her conspiratorially. “It’s for a girl.”
“Wait, let me guess,” Barbara laughs and grabs at her heart. “Ooh, Claire!”
“Bingo.” Walter points at her and sits back in his chair, grinning. “It seems he finally took my advice and actually talked to Miss Nunez.”
“He talked to her?” Barbara’s eyes widen in feigned wonder. “What a concept. God, kids have no social skills these days.”
“I blame social media.” Walter grabs his teacup but doesn’t drink from it. “In my day, we actually had to interact with one another face-to-face. None of this texting and snaptalk.”
“Snapchat,” Barbara corrects. “I do pay some attention, even if I’m not home very often.”
Walter winces inwardly. “I deserve that.”
“No, you’re right.” Barbara sighs and begins fiddling with her teacup. “I’ve always wanted to be a doctor, but it’s very difficult to juggle such a demanding career and motherhood. Especially with Jim’s dad out of the picture.”
“I can see how that would be difficult. But Jim is a wonderful child,” Walter says earnestly, frowning because it’s true and he really doesn’t want to have to have to kill the boy. “You’ve done a great job. You shouldn’t sell yourself short.”
“Thanks.” She smiles, genuinely grateful for the reinforcement. “What about you? Married? Kids?”
“Neither. I’m just very much like you; dedicated to my work. Married to the job, they say.”
“Well, shaping the minds of our youth is rather important.” Barbara nods her head sagely. “Did you always want to teach high school history?”
“Oh god, no,” Walter snorts, eyes wide. “I’ve done my share of field work and have spent some time in museums. I taught at UNC a few years back.”
“Ah, Yes. I actually knew that.” Barbara drops her gaze to her cup. “I went to med school there.”
“Really?” Walter frowns at the sudden tension in Barbara’s shoulders. “When did you attend?”
“2000 to 2005.” Barbara looks up. “I would have graduated in ‘04, but I took a semester off when Jim was born.”
“Oh?” He’s missing something and he knows it. “I was teaching undergrad history then.”
“Ancient Civilizations and Greek Mythology, right?” Barbara breathes, smiling faintly. “Your students were inept, your department chair was a tenured dick, and your TA didn’t know his head from his ass. Granted, it’s been sixteen years so those may not have been your exact words.”
Walter is unable to do much more than stare at her as the pieces finally fall into place. He knows why she seems so familiar now, why that picture of her gave him pause. “Yes,” he says after a moment of cognizant processing, “James was a right idiot. I do believe I had him sacked a few days after shagging his girlfriend.”
“I wasn’t his girlfriend when we slept together,” Barbara reminds him gently. “That’s why I was at the bar, remember?”
Oh, he remembers - remembers the frustration and anger that had driven him to that bar, remembers ordering a shot of tequila and watching it slide to a stop between him and the pretty redhead to his left, remembers their fingers closing around the cold glass at the same time and the electricity her touch sent through him. He remembers taking her home with him, though the events that followed are still somewhat blurry.
“You were gone when I woke up,” he’s surprised by the accusation in his tone.
“I had a one-night stand with a professor.” Barbara shrugs. “It wasn’t one of my prouder moments.”
“There was literally a BINGO card with professor’s names on it circulating the sororities.” Why does he still feel so bitter all these years later? “I was propositioned every other day.”
Barbara raises an eyebrow.
“I never accepted,” Walter squawks indignantly. “You are the only student I have ever gone off with.”
“If you did it once-“
“I liked you,” Walter sneers, offended by her assumptions. “You were – are – beautiful and intelligent and I enjoyed talking with you. I shouldn’t have pursued you once I realized you were a student, but I did so because…” He trails off with a shake of his head. “It doesn’t matter.”
“It does- “Barbara immediately stops talking when the front door creaks open. She looks troubled, her eyebrows knotting thoughtfully as she stares at Walter, but it’s obvious she won’t be continuing this line of conversation now that Jim has come home. “In the kitchen, honey. Look who stopped by.”
Jim, who had been babbling about some misadventure he’d been caught up in on his way home, freezes when he enters the kitchen. “Mr. Strickler?”
Walter reluctantly tears his gaze from Barbara, who is glancing between the boy and the changeling intently, and forces a smile as he turns to his student. “Hello, Jim.”
“What…” Jim glances from his teacher to his mother and back again. “What are you doing here?”
“I came to congratulate you.” He’d usually monologue or quote or allude to Jim’s newfound Trollhunting responsibilities, but he just doesn’t have the energy. “I’m sure you’ll do the part of Romeo justice.”
“Why didn’t you tell me you were trying out for the school play?” Barbara asks and, still sporting a somewhat troubled look, pushes back in her chair to stand. Walter, correctly interpreting the action as a dismissal, follows suit a moment later.
“Wait, can we back up a few steps?” Jim turns on his heel to watch Barbara and Walter pass him on their way out of the kitchen.
“Jim, surely you knew you won the part?” Walter says and turns back just before he reaches the foyer. “After that breathtaking audition yesterday, how could you not have?”
“Yeah,” Jim frowns and scratches the back of his neck in what Walter recognizes as a nervous gesture. “After the audition I had to run but… Wait. I got the part?”
Walter nods. “But Jim, I also came to tell your mother about my concerns. I’m afraid you may be spreading yourself too thin with your new commitments.”
“Like the chess club?” Barbara chimes in, already standing by the open door. “I thought you hated chess. And acting? It’s like you have this secret life I know nothing about.”
“You have no idea,” Jim scoffs, rolling his eyes.
Walter sighs. “Young Atlas, too, carried the weight of the world on his shoulders.” He frowns as he glances at the picture on the console one last time. “I’m afraid you may be overextending yourself.”
“Eh.” Jim shrugs off the changeling’s words with a wave of his hand. “I can handle it.”
“I’ve no doubt you’re capable.” Walter levels a concerned look at his favorite-student-turned-thorn-in-his-side. “But you did fall asleep in my class a few days ago.”
“Wait.” Barbara interrupts, curiously holding up one hand. “You didn’t mention that part.”
“I do believe our conversation took a rather abrupt turn before I had the chance,” Walter’s voice is much softer now and he tilts his head as he approaches her. “Don’t you?”
Barbara smiles, though it doesn’t quite reach her eyes.
“I’d like to finish talking with you.”
“I think we need to.” The way she stresses the words and the imploring, knowing look in her eye sets him on edge. “Here.” Barbara reaches forward, her fingers brushing against Walter’s chest as she pulls a pen and piece of paper from the pocket of his jacket. She scribbles her number down and hands the scrap back to him. “Call me.”
Walter smirks as he takes, not only the slip of paper, but Barbara’s hand into his own. He drops a lingering kiss on her knuckles, relishing in her quiet gasp at the contact, and murmurs, “I will.”
Jim loudly clears his throat, effectively shattering the moment.
“Young Atlas,” Walter calls with a lazy salute as he walks out the door. “Don’t forget to study for the quiz tomorrow.”